Blackbirds Are Built For a Distinctive Feeding Style Known as ‘Gaping’

Powerful gapers have stronger muscles for opening the bill than for closing it—perfect for prying objects open to reveal the morsels inside.

This audio story is brought to you by BirdNote, a partner of the National Audubon Society. BirdNote episodes air daily on public radio stations nationwide.


This is BirdNote!

Today, we’ve invited BirdNote science advisor, Dr. Gordon Orians, to discuss an unusual adaptation in blackbirds, a family of birds on which he’s a world-renowned expert.

“Blackbirds have an unusual method of foraging, which is called gaping. And what gaping is is the ability to forcibly open the bill against some pressure, so that a bird like a meadowlark can push its bill into the base of a grass clump, forcibly open it, and that reveals the insects that may be down hidden in the base. Now, what’s unusual about this is that most birds have their most powerful muscles for closing the bill, because they have to snap or grab or crush seeds, or do something . . . The blackbirds that are powerful gapers have stronger muscles for opening the bill than they do for closing it, so they can generate quite a bit of pressure to open the bill.”

“The shape of the head in these blackbirds is such that they can focus their eyes forward and see right down to where the tip of the bill is, so anything that’s exposed, they can look straight at it.”

Although they’re not blackbirds, starlings also gape as they work over a lawn. 

You can see what Gordon Orians is talking about, on our website, birdnote.org. I’m Mary McCann.


Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Song of Western Meadowlark recorded by W.R. Fish. European Starling song recorded by G.A. Keller. 

BirdNote’s theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.

Narrator: Mary McCann

Dr. Orians interviewed by Adam Sedgley: a JK studio recording

Producer: John Kessler

Executive Producer: Chris Peterson

© 2014 Tune In to Nature.org    July  2018/2020    


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